“I got rock n roll…”

“I got rock ‘n’ roll, to save me from the cold
And if that’s all there is, it ain’t so bad.”
– Motorhead, “Rock n Roll”

When I first heard those words in 1987, they resonated with me. I was a lonely kid with only a few friends and no real expectation that life held much for me outside of the awkwardness of that age. Rock n roll was something I could cling to and trust. It had real meaning to me and, at the time, it certainly seemed like that wasn’t so bad.

As the years have gone by and life has opened up beyond my wildest 16 year-old imagination, I have a different take on those words. Over the years, I have often referred to rock n roll as my “secular religion” and it has, in its best moments, approached being a religious experience, particularly at shows. A band as mundane of the Foo Fighters even had a moment of transcendence when, during “February Stars,” the white stage lights turned on the crowd; or the Mars Volta playing their whole set without a word to the crowd, because they didn’t need to speak any more than their music did. I still feel the humanity of Efrim Menuck answering questions, both serious and silly, at a recent Thee Silver Mount Zion show and the raw energy of singing “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa” along with the MC5 on their “reunion” tour a few years ago. Perhaps now more than ever, I find myself at a show, whispering up a prayer of thanks to God for this music that I love.

Why then do I find it leaving me empty with its pop culture mores that pass as rebelliousness and in some cases, even revolution? Why is it that the comfort of my record collection is no longer…well, comforting?

In my basement, I have shelves that hold over 4500 vinyl records. It wasn’t that long ago (months, not years) that I was drawn down there to immerse myself in the pleasure of the sounds cut into those grooves, enjoying flipping through a shelf-full as I listened. It was for me almost a shrine of sorts…and that’s what now bothers me about going down there. That’s what bothers me about the time I spend with music. Have I forsaken things that matter for things that I know? Things that are safe? Jesus said, in St Matthew’s Gospel, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” And where is my treasure? Is it in the basement, made up of round plastic discs in cardboard sleeves, carefully stored in polyethylene bags? Is it in the selfish pursuit of more and more, despite the fact that I have more than I could ever play? Despite the fact that I am largely the only person who ever hears them?

I wonder now if I have built a monument to myself or worse still built a trophy and awarded it to myself for my own non-accomplishment. How different is my collection, my selfish life pursuit, from an expensive car bought to bolster the idea that one can be satisfied by things? I don’t think it is very different and that’s what’s really getting under my skin.

But I’m lucky, because I’m realizing this now. I’m realizing this while my kids are young enough. I’m realizing this before it’s sucked me in entirely. I’m lucky to find that those records aren’t my treasure and now Lemmy’s words are a different kind of comfort, reminding me rock n roll is not “all there is.”

8 thoughts on ““I got rock n roll…”

  1. Chuck

    Was it not Matthew who also said, “No one can serve two masters”?

    Are you attempting to serve two masters, or are you cherishing the gifts that your single master has provided to you? Are you, like the birds, simply being fed by your heavenly Father?

    In other words, I think you’re oversimplifying it. I think you’re trying to interpret shades of grey as black or white. Having 4,500 records sitting in your basement doesn’t necessarily mean you are storing up treasures on earth. Your relationship with those records is what dictates where your treasures lie.

    If nothing else, you use those records to play music for your kids. That’s important. It’s as important as helping your kids to experience the beauty of a sunset or the power of the ocean. Music might be the most compelling evidence that god (I’ll use the little-g god, as a compromise between our differing spiritual ideas) exists, and you’re sharing that with your kids. How could that possibly be equated to placing your heart with an earthbound treasure?

    I think most people like me and you sometimes cross the line where recorded music becomes our treasure. When that happens, it’s time to make some changes. For me, it was only when I lost all my records that I awoke to the power they had held over me. But that was my journey, and you’re obviously at a point where you’re more self-aware than I was.

    The live music experiences you describe are incredibly powerful, but most of us cannot experience those on a day-to-day basis. Years ago, I was listening to a Carl Cox DJ set that I’d downloaded from Napster. I’d heard Cox live a few days before, and it was on par with those “religious” musical experiences you described. And there I was, sitting alone in my little room and trying to recreate a “religious” experience. Unsurprisingly, I failed. Live shows are filled with energy and connections and spontaneity and excitement and all the things that make music (and life) fantastic. Recorded music cannot capture that.

    But recorded music can accompany you on a life that is filled with energy and connections and spontaneity and excitement and all the things that make life (and music) fantastic.

    So my question to you is this: are your records your treasure, or is life your treasure and your records simply make the journey of your life more enjoyable?

  2. bobvinyl Post author

    It was Christ who said, “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Matthew wrote it down.

    I agree with you that merely having the records does not indicate that I am serving two masters. Having a big house or expensive car doesn’t either. It is only when those things possess us that they interfere with our true treasure that should be the object of our hearts. I think of the line from the Rudyard Kipling poem: “If you can make a heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss / And lose and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss.” I also think of Kris Kristofferson’s line, “Freedom is just another word for ‘nothing left to lose.'” Both express a freedom from possession, but in a very different way as the former despite having things and that is the more difficult path, though likely the needed path in our time and place. The question isn’t whether I can own 4500 records in good conscience, but whether I actually do so in good conscience. I cannot if they possess me.

    The other question is how does this fit into who I have become and who I am striving to be. Where does Black Flag fit? Where does Slayer fit? When I saw Facr to Face recently, Trevor Keith said that punk is “still all about this” and gave the crowd the finger. If he’s correct, and I believe that he is to some extent, where does that fit in with me? It’s pretty easy for me to dismiss the misogyny and casual sex of hair metal, because it never meant much to me, but even those records remain. Why? Surely they should go before Black Flag. I used to think punk had been this great gift to me that said I don’t have to be like everyone else. Perhaps that’s true, but it also made me cold and insular. It helped me to suppress my love.

    Is rock n roll really “three chords and the truth?” Perhaps it is on occasion, but those occasions are very, very rare. Usually, it’s just superficial pop culture being passed off as profound. Why have a I kept so much of it around and defended it? Some people put PHD, MD or MBA after their names. I think if I could, I may have wanted to put 4500 LPs after mine. Wow, some accomplishment. I have a lot of records and I know a fair bit about them. It’s something I almost never share with anyone, even my kids.

  3. Chuck

    I’ll step away from the question of whether or not the records are your treasure, and look at your question about the content of the records.

    That’s a really neat thing about free will: we can appreciate artistic expression without necessarily emulating or even endorsing what is being expressed. Disney movies infuriate me when I think about their social undertones, but I can lose myself in the animation for hours on end.

    With that said, there is a lot of music that irritates me on some social/ethical level. There is already too much ignorance and violence and misogyny in my life, and I don’t want to hear more of it in the guise of entertainment. As such, I don’t listen to much hard rock or mainstream hip-hop. I’m a hypocrite, though, because I like listening to Zeppelin and Wu-Tang and Eminem.

    There’s also nothing wrong with deciding you just don’t like something anymore. I realized years ago that I don’t like Van Halen, even though I loved them when I was a teenager. It’s kind of pathetic to hear 30-year-old David Lee Roth singing about being hot for teacher. It conjures images of the middle-aged guy who drives his Camaro to the roller skating rink and hangs out with teenage girls. There is so much exciting music out there that I have no time for crap like this.

    You and I have a very different relationship with punk, but I don’t have much interest in stuff that exists solely to give the world the finger. To me, Face to Face is irrelevant, and I don’t think their actions are even worth acknowledging. I’m not going to stop listening to The Clash or Silver Mt. Zion (to me, the epitome of a modern punk band), though, even if a bunch of punks at the mall give me the finger.

    Part of the reason I’m into house music is because it is rooted in a positive energy. One of the things I loved about the rave culture was the fact that a room full of extremely different people (race, age, education, etc) were embracing the idea of PLUR — peace, love, unity, and respect. Yes, it’s as simple-minded and artificial as the punk credo of rebellion, but I found more joy in a room full of hugs than I did in a room full of middle fingers.

    As for Black Flag and Slayer… I think both examples you chose are interesting because both bands (or at least members within both bands) have a fairly strong contrast between their outward messages and their attempts to find some sort of deeper truth. I think if you pursue your quest for musical truth with a clear head and heart, you’ll quickly recognize which bands are worth keeping and which you can let go.

    To wrap this all up with a food metaphor… there’s nothing wrong with having some dessert in your life. Dessert is fun and empty and delicious, and there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s balanced with healthy stuff. I like ice cream and I like Zeppelin, but I don’t consume either one regularly.

    And there’s also nothing wrong with acknowledging that you dislike certain desserts. I think Twinkies are nasty, and as a vegetarian, I won’t eat them because they have beef in them. I also think Van Halen is nasty, and I have no interesting in listening to a middle-aged perv sing about high school.

  4. Chuck

    I’ll leave one last thought before this comment thread fizzles out…

    Why don’t you just find a more meaningful way to engage with your music?

    If you want to use your record collection as a way to educate people on music, teach a class on American music at a local community college or rec center. As I recall, you have a background in education… so put it to work!

    If you want to use your record collection as a way to motivate yourself to do something meaningful, stop listening to music in your basement and start listening in your car while you deliver food to homeless shelters.

    And if you simply want to share more music with your kids (“It’s something I almost never share with anyone, even my kids.”), then spend less time talking about music with us schmucks on the web and more time listening to it with your kids.

  5. bobvinyl Post author

    First, if I am concerned that music, not just the records, has become too important to me, why would I want to encourage others (whether students or my own kids) to go down that road? Second, what does listening to music have to do with helping the homeless? Are you saying that by serving the homeless, I am somehow earning a trip down the wrong path?

  6. Chuck

    From what you wrote, I didn’t get the sense that music had become too important. I got the sense that the trappings of music — the records, and the record collecting, and the time alone in the basement listening to records — had become too important. (It’s easy to get records and music confused, but they have virtually nothing to do with one another. It’s like getting books and stories confused, or bodies and souls confused. The former is simply a tangible vehicle for the latter.) If you get too concerned with the records, then it stops being about the music.

    I never felt like your complaint was that music was becoming disproportionately large in your life, but rather that the trappings of music were becoming disproportionately large. If music is too large in your life, this should be a totally different discussion.

    I simply used helping the homeless as an example since it was something we discussed recently. What I’m saying, though, is that putting your heart with the “right” treasure and loving music isn’t an either/or situation. Instead of spending three hours alone in the basement or bidding on second-rate hair metal records on Ebay, spend one of those hours helping the homeless. And make that hour even more joyous by listening to music while you’re helping the homeless. The idea that good works have to be joyless is a very puritanical idea, and a very useless idea. Good works should be filled with joy, and doesn’t good music make almost everything more joyous?

    Maybe you should move the turntable into the living room. Then music becomes a family experience rather than a Bob experience. Would that make a positive difference?

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